The new heat reaches us from the seeping marsh, the lichen-veiled trees, and our soft bedding of damp sphagnum moss. The water, which used to be as cool as a mallard’s feet, is now as warm as bat blood, the trunks that were hunched and slowly choked by vines have stretched like flowers in the sun, and the glistening purple earthworms that used to peek up through the moss are no longer here.
Vessel sits up. His eyes are milky, with a stripe of black cutting across the eyeball, deltas of red at the edges. His lips are gone, exposing his teeth, they are still quite white. Tiny beads cover his brow and the bridge of what’s left of his nose, like the droplets that seep out when you cut a fruit in half. He wipes the moisture away with a worm-eaten hand, then smiles at me, the missing lips making him look genuinely happy.
“It’s turning warmer,” Vessel says, his voice like dry leaves. “Like last time?”
“The sun is coming back,” I say. “We must prevent it.”
“It’s been cloudy for as long as I can recall,” he says and strokes my back with one fleshless digit.
“You don’t remember how it used to be.”
He drags himself to the edge of our mound, a crocodile nest hidden in the swamp grass, then leans forward and splashes brown water across his face and neck. He pulls his t-shirt off, it’s just a few strings of once-white cotton looping around his chest and shoulders, but he keeps it nevertheless. He dips the remnants of the garment in the water, kneads a few times, then folds it up and wrings it, slaps the moist fabric out and pulls it back on, now patterned with rotten grass and other detritus. His black pants had two pockets down either leg, but now only the upper left pouch is still there.
I used to mock him, but then he found a soft crocodile nest in the middle of the marsh and rolled and rolled and rolled with the poor crocodile mother and her three toothy children until the water frothed red and sloshed far up on the muddy bank, and the reptiles left while they hissed loudly at us, and I took care of the eggs.
“I’ll call you Solsvart,” he said. “That means Blackbird.”
He sits down, stretches his legs out in front of him and ties two moss-furred branches, one along the outside of his right thigh and the other along the inner thigh, with thick-barked ivy vines in looping, tight knots. When he is finished, he pushes himself up and hobbles, leg out, down to the rowboat on the bank.
The old craft is even more diminished than last time we were awake. Beetles and maggots have eaten away at the rim, the wood is as smooth and gray as the tree trunks that float ashore at the coast. The previously broad blade of the single oar that is left is now barely wider than the shaft. But the bottom of the boat is still intact, covered by orange and brown and yellow leaves.
I hop up on the bow and he leans onto the stern and pushes the rowboat out into the languid current. Long green water lily stems waft like tendrils in the wake of the ancient wood and the warm fragrance of decay rises from the water. The boat scrapes along the mud, then floats. Vessel throws himself on the transom, pulls himself forward and slides down on the leaves. They crinkle in protest and two gray centipedes scuttle up from the dryness and over the rim.
We move slowly through the night, the cloud cover like a lid, as it has been for almost as long as I can remember. Across the still surface a loon calls for her lover. Frogs and cicadas fill the air with noise. Bats, their silhouettes darker than the gloom, cut the fetid air with their wings. A moth the size of Vessel’s head flutters out of the blackness, a pale blotch shaped like a human skull flashing on its back. Vessel shouts and ducks and ruffles the hair he has left.
“I hate moths,” he mutters. Then he lies down again on the dry leaves and I alight on his chest.
The current takes us to a narrow but deep stream that curls through the forest. Beneath us luminescent fish glitter like gold coins. Sparse foliage covered with dust scrape the bow and sides. I glance up now and then, but Vessel remains still. The water clucks and chortles against the worm-pitted wood.
The little stream grows larger and larger and brighter and brighter in color, until it is almost beige and so wide the wall of vegetation on both sides of it sinks into the morning mist. The boat tilts with the pull of the current and increases in speed. Vessel springs up, glances around, then pulls the oar out from the bottom of the rowboat and plunges it into the churning water. A short while of furious staking brings us down across the current to the opposite shore. At the first sight of a sandy bank, Vessel steers the boat on land. There, he pulls the ancient wood up into the underbrush, then starts walking upstream along the river.
The City of Stone
After a day’s journey along the riverbed, the trees thin to bushes, then give way to a grassy moor that stretches inland. We leave the water’s edge and follow the heath towards the foothills in the distance. There is only the soft sound of the tip of the oar against the ground as Vessel leans onto the shaft while he makes his way across the plain, the whisper of grass against his legs, and the susurration from the insects that surround us. We continue day and night.
When the ground turns dry and gray with pebbles and sand, the foothills have come much closer. The pale outline of a path winds along the steep slopes. We follow it up into the mountains.
“Stay on the path to the next peak,” I tell Vessel after a trip in the air. At the summit, which is lower than the others around us, the ground is white and very cold, like it is in the high north, but when we are past the watershed, the path turns dusty and stone-filled again.
As we start the descent, and the trail sidles past a blade-edged crag, a wide plateau with geometrical shapes, rectangles and squares of all sizes, interspersed with parallel lines, and the occasional circle, more lines, and more rectangles, come into view. It looks like a maze constructed from right angles only.
We descend the final slope and enter the City of Stone. The geometrical patterns are created by long, low walls of enormous stone blocks. Scattered along the walls are mounds and piles of cracked mineral and broken stone. Here and there a corner is still standing — two walls leaning into one another, or a jagged piece of floor juts out from a wall like a path to the heavens. Other places we see the zig-zag traces of staircases that once climbed the stone, or the wooden remnants of shutters and doors. It is impossible to guess how high the walls once were. Now they reach barely to Vessel’s thigh, and all their edges are worn concave by the dust and wind. We enter the outlines which the unknown structures have left on the ground, but all we find are more collapsed walls, debris and stone. There are no other sounds than the shrieking of the wind through the broken walls and the crunch of Vessel’s footsteps on the ground. The air smells of snow, yet even at this elevation there is a moist warmth to the air, like perspiration, and the days are brighter than in the lowland.
Occasionally, Vessel lies down on his back in the gravel. I curl up in the crook of his arm as I’m afraid the wind will pick me up and hurl me across the ground before I wake.
The City of Stone turns light and dark a few times more. In the distance, rays of sunlight break through the rushing clouds. The wind never ceases or dies down. We find a lump of more than a dozen rats stuck in a hole at the bottom of a wall. The rodents’ tails have been tangled together, broken at the knots, healed crooked, and grown together, so no individual could go where it wanted to. Their skin is dry and buckled, as if it has been cured, and their little claws curl helplessly beneath their bodies. They have been dead for so long they don’t even smell. We walk on.
It grows dark and light and dark again. The field of walls and mounds and gravel does not end. The wind becomes a constant whistling in our ears.
“Let’s go back,” I say.
Vessel grins and starts walking down the remnants of a street.
“This way,” I say and turn in the direction of the mountains in the distance. There, beyond rows and rows of fallen barriers, is the slope we came down from and the path that clings to its side.
“No, this is a city and we shall treat it as one,” Vessel says. He follows the dead traces of streets and roads back to the foothill, even when only open stretches or completely collapsed walls separate us from our goal.
The City of Trees
We descend the mountains and the foothills, cross the heath, and return to the broad, warm river. The boat is where we left it on the taupe-colored bank.
“Let’s follow the river to the ocean,” I say. “Perhaps we will find what we seek there.”
Vessel pushes the old wood back into the cloudy current, pulls himself up on the stern and crawls down into the leaf-covered bottom. I settle on his chest and together we travel slowly to the coast.
It is night when we arrive. There is a faint glow in the sky from the full moon, but it cannot break through the clouds. Our boat crunches ashore. The gravel beach curves gently up from the ocean, which is as black and gleaming as a crow’s eye.
Vessel pushes the rowboat further up on land and with a heave and a stumble, turns the boat around. Its rounded bow and broad flanks gouge deep gashes into the sand and oily water rushes in to fill the depressions.
We begin to walk, not so close to the water as to be slowed down by the fine, gray sand deposited there, or so far up on land as to be hindered by the tall, sharp grass growing there. Instead, we walk along the part of the shore that has been packed dense and hard by the ocean’s constant heartbeat. A slow surf hisses along the beach, depositing reams of piss-yellow foam that rolls and flutters like flags in the breeze. Here and there we pass the remains of tree trunks, branches and seaweed that have been washed ashore. They are dry and smooth and have been turned to stone by time and the unending wind. We more feel than see the ocean, pushing against us in wave after wave, slowly swallowing the land.
We follow the coastline for several days and nights. None of us say anything, but it’s an easy silence. When the shore becomes lined with low fir trees, blushing bilberry shrub and purple heather, we turn inland. The underbrush soon gives way to a carpet of yellow fir needles. Row upon row of brown trunks and green canopies stretch out in every direction and dampen the wind to a whisper. The air is heavy with the scent of tree sap and rotting wood. Only gnarled roots, jagged rocks and reddish-black anthills break the monotony of the endless ranks of trees.
“I smell smoke,” Vessel says, sniffing the air. “Do you?”
I look up at the ragged patch of sky that is barely visible between the dark treetops.
“Perhaps it is from the City of Trees?” I say.
We follow the scent of the smoke. Vessel’s oar-leaning footsteps make almost no sound on the thick fir needles. Soon I can smell the smoke too. Night falls, then dawn, then night again. It is warm and the silence hums in our ears.
We enter a clearing and then we see the city, above us, in the trees. Circular wooden platforms held aloft by fans of narrow struts fill the sky like clouds. We can make out the dark shapes of structures atop the platforms, small dwellings with domed roofs. Between the platforms stretch long rope bridges, and garlands with hanging lanterns and rope ladders descend nearly to the ground.
But the trees and platforms are charred black and the ground is gray with ashes that whirls up and dusts the air. Most of the platforms have split and fallen down. Seared tree trunks and the remnants of rope bridges and huts litter the ashes. Spiraling ferns flash green among the gray. Saplings and vines stretch up, but the canopies above them have already started to retake the sky.
Vessel walks over to a piece of rope that dangles from a platform and tugs at it. The fiber turns to dust in his hand.
“Here I can’t go,” he says.
“I will be back shortly,” I say and fly up. Vessel sits down on a fallen trunk and leans against the fir behind it.
I check every platform and dwelling I can see, but find among the singed walls and perforated floors only the remnants of tables and stools, cracked pottery, and burned bones. As I land on the edge of a wooden disc, it creaks loudly, breaks off, plunges into the ground in a cloud of ashes, and tumbles into the ferns.
Vessel slowly stands, then limps over to inspect. The wayward structure has tipped a charred fir over, leaving a net of roots hanging like wet hair from the end of the overturned trunk. Vessel leans forward and peers into the hole. He hunches down and pulls out a bundle of blackened snakes. The serpents are coiled tightly around one another into long ropes, each as thick as Vessel’s lower arms, and are as crisp and brittle as the burned wood around us.
“They were too busy mating to care about the fire,” Vessel says. He tosses the cluster of seared snakes into the soot and rubs his hands on his trousers. There is nothing here for us.
We can’t follow the scent back, so I fly up over the cone-shaped canopies and look for the dream-like glimmer of the sea to set us on the right course. This must be done several times a day, as Vessel has a tendency to walk in circles when he has no bearing. On the long trek back, we speak only once.
“Is that what everything will look like when the sun has eaten us?” I say.
The City of Reeds
When we are back at the hissing shore, we follow the coast north for two days and two nights. We progress fast as the gravel is easy to walk on and there is nothing to confuse our sense of direction.
On the second night we see something on the beach, partly on land, half bobbing in the waves. Tiny black flies cover the ground like billowing black lace and part before Vessel’s bare and grime-streaked feet with a sharp and angry hum. An overpowering smell of putrefaction drowns out the scent from the sea, and we are not surprised when we see that the thing in the water is the slime-covered corpse of a giant squid. The mottled, spindle-shaped form is at least four times longer than our rowboat and the two leading tentacles twice the length of the body itself. Its ten muscular limbs are as thick as tree trunks yet waft limply in the surf, tangling and sliding into one another. The bulging, gelatinous corpse has ruptured along the side and spilled its precious catch in a long reeking mound; glistening herring, slim sardines, and tiny gray shrimp, black crabs with legs the length of Vessel’s arms, a couple of rusty-red octopi, and the saw-toothed jaw of a small sperm whale.
An enormous eye as wide as Vessel is tall stares out onto the beach and the rustling heath beyond. Through the transparent skin, we see that black pigment covers the back of the eyeball. In the faint light from the ocean it gleams like silver.
Vessel places his hands by the dead animal’s eye, leans forward and pushes so the soft flesh quakes and quivers. He wades into the dead school of fish and crustaceans, and shoves at the middle. Then he pushes at the animal’s broadest, tentacle-adorned end, before he moves back to the head. He pushes and pulls until he manages to shift the enormous corpse enough for the waves to take hold of it and drag it out to sea with them. Gas bubbles to the surface in a torrent of sound and smell, but the squid vanishes into the depths. Afterwards Vessel scrubs his hands and feet in the black water for a long time.
The next morning we reach the City of Reeds. But the beach is empty, not even a twig of driftwood or a blade of seaweed can be seen on the shore. There is only sand and pebbles and Vessel’s three-legged footprints unfurling in a long tail behind us.
“This is where the City of Reeds used to be,” I say.
Vessel looks around. Out in the deeper water, a swell lifts and crests and is illuminated from behind by the gray dawn that shines in from the horizon. For a brief moment, dark forms and shapes gleam deep inside the wave, like distant stars, before the fluid wall crashes down and rolls unimpeded towards the shore. Vessel wrings off the tatters of his shirt, unties the thin branches that support his leg, pulls off his pants and hobbles out into the water.
“Here, I cannot follow,” I say and settle on the smooth gray pebbles while the wind ruffles the feathers on my back.
Vessel limps out into the gray waves until only his head peeks above the surface and the long strands of hair that still stick to his skull float like black kelp about it. Then even that disappears into the water.
I close my eyes and imagine Vessel suspended between the dark ocean floor and the bright sea surface like a bird in a breathing sky. There, among luminescent cold water reefs, mounds of gray brain coral, billowing black nudibranchs and blood-red sea anemones, he sees glazed roofs and hedge-bounded gardens in a grid of streets lined with vehicles and garbage bins and lamps. Some of the houses have sharply slanting roofs with many gables and horizontal siding, and small windows with sheer silk curtains that waft in the water. Other homes have flat roofs and floor-to-ceiling glass doors and white vertical blinds floating out through a gap in the transparent barrier. In the gardens Vessel spots old pear trees, cherry saplings, red rhubarb spreading its wide leaves over the lawn, maples, birches, larks, white roses, pink honeysuckle, and orange lilies. But he sees no people and no animals, only empty gardens and houses.
The day passes and darkens to night. It is noticeably warmer than before we set out on our journey. The black surf rolls lazily onto land, occasionally sending a spray of salty drops my way. I see a faint motion out among the gloomy waves, like the slick head of a seal or an otter, but it’s Vessel, slowly swimming towards the shore. He continues until he’s almost on land, then stands up and limps out of the surf. He wrings his hair and shakes the moisture off his hands, then puts his dry clothes back on.
“Did you find anything?” I say.
“Lots,” he smiles and sea water tumbles out of his lipless mouth and down his chest. “Gardens, houses, roads, but the roads were cracked and broken, the gardens covered in weeds and the houses empty and peeling. The vehicles had rusted apart and everything was dark and quiet. I saw no one, neither living nor dead.”
“I saw you among the houses and the gardens, the trees were still green and lights glowed in some of the windows,” I say.
“I’m afraid it wasn’t so,” Vessels says.
“Did you find anything that can help us stop the sun?”
“No, not a single object, except for starfish and sea kelp and corals.”
“Then we have failed in our stewardship again.” I bow my neck and a cold tear forces itself out of my eye and down my beak.
Vessel folds his time-eaten hands around me, picks me up and puts me on his shoulder, which is somehow still warm.
“One more place,” he says.
The City of Tar
Tar is said to have been a wealthy city once, glittering at the edge of the boiling marshes that separate the endless fir forests from the icy wastes. Others claim Tar used to be an extensive factory that squeezed bitumen from the bog, liquefied the black material and shipped it south beyond the tundra. Avenues of rusty pipes still criss-cross Tar like old scars, and rows of circular tanks gape silently into the dusk-dark sky. Tar is still gleaming, but now from a thousand flickering, dripping torches that fill the air with a greasy, black smoke that mixes with the stench of decomposition from the bog and the odor of the city’s own pitch-smeared buildings. Since offal and nastier wastes are thrown right out of the sheds and shacks and into the marsh, we smell Tar long before we get there.
Despite its quivering luminance, Tar is nearly quiet. The most prominent noise is Vessel’s slow footsteps on the petrified wooden planks that lead from the edge of the bog to the dark cluster of buildings that is Tar. Behind the sound of Vessel’s walking, there is a creaking and grating and whirring. Between the pipes and tanks we see the silhouettes of tall pumps that dip their heads into the tar, again and again and again. Occasionally we hear the sound of shutters opening and closing behind us and the murmur of voices. The torches sputter and hiss and somewhere nearby water drip-drip-drips.
As we cross the street between a dark staircase and a narrow alley we see a shadow moving quickly away from us. Vessel shouts and hobbles after it. I lift and chase the shadow too. We turn corner after corner, deeper and deeper into the maze of tarred and sagging wood. A pebble flies out of the darkness towards me, like an undiscovered asteroid. I circle higher. Vessel, oar in hand, catches up to the stranger.
The person turns toward us. It is a head taller than Vessel, with skin the color of lard drawn taut over sharp bones, round blue eyes that blink out of sequence on either side of a narrow skull, a thin axe-head of a nose running down its face and a mouth that reaches almost behind its neck. The fingers are so long they fan out on the planks, yet the feet are round like table-legs, wrapped in mud-caked rags. Between its arms hang what I at first think is a bag or a pouch, but which turns out to be a stomach flapping out of the cracked chest.
He stares at Vessel’s hands, then motions for us to follow. The tar person leads us along the bitumen-dark streets to a small building with a flat roof and glass windows that are still intact. The cloudy panes glow a faint, misty blue.
“Tomorrow at dawn,” the tar person smacks.
Vessel inclines his head. Our guide then takes us to a shack at the edge of the maze, up a creaking staircase that winds along a naphthalene-stinking wall to a lopsided door on the second floor. At first the door seems stuck in the frame, but our host pulls until the barrier slams open and bangs into the wall behind it. The tar person takes down the torch that hangs by the door. The cone of quivering, smoky light reveals a room about the length and width of our rowboat, with a bed on the wall furthest from the door.
The tar being puts the torch back into the holder and scuttles headfirst down the wall. Vessel removes the torch and puts it out by stepping on it, grinding it to ashes under his dirty, long-nailed feet. Inside, he feels the lock for a key but finds none. When he sits down on the gray wool blanket on the bed dust plumes from it. Vessel pulls his legs up, swivels around and lies down on his back. He blinks a few times, then falls silent. I settle on his chest and dream about the curtains wafting behind the windows in the City of Reeds.
I wake Vessel in the middle of the night. He groans and turns over to re-enter his rest. I bite his right earlobe, the one that has the most flesh left on it.
“Time to search,” I say.
Vessel climbs up on the building and from there he crawls across the rooftops while I guide him from the air back to the structure with the glowing windows. There he creeps in through a hole in the wall.
Luminescent blue lichen fills the corners and streaks the walls and ceiling, affording just enough light to see by. Dried mud crunches underfoot. The room is empty save for a cabinet in the back. Flanking the cabinet are two dusty beeswax candles in heavy pewter holders. The candles are bent like the necks of swans searching for food beneath the marsh surface and are so long the wicks lean against the dirty floor.
Vessel slides the cabinet open, its innards glowing with fungal luminescence. On a cushion of red velvet dotted with green mold sits a skeletal right hand. Thick rings bearing smooth mineral ovals adorn the thumb, middle and little finger. Another shelf contains the bones of a child’s left foot. Further down is a mounted right foot, the toenails curved and filthy. On the bottom shelf is a carving in polished granite depicting a mass of ropy limbs that curl and slither and slip into one another. The knot has no beginning and no end and makes me think of rat tails tangled so tightly that their owners can’t move, snakes mating in a pit while the forest burns around them, and the arms of a dead giant squid rolling limply in the surf. This is what we need to get rid of, what is burning us up, like a warning we did not heed or a wrong we did not right.
The moment Vessel grasps the object the ground begins to shake. Out in the bog orange jets of burning gas flare up and the creaking pumps stop and begin to fall apart in a chorus of slowly bending metal, bangs and clangs. Then we hear the slamming of doors, pounding of steps, and yelling of thick-tongued voices from all around us.
Vessel limps as quickly as he can. We hear shuffling and flapping and panting at every corner, behind every shutter and door, the mud burps and suckles, the tarred wood screams from being scratched by long, thin hands. When I fly higher I see them, a dark crowd filling the streets and alleys like oil seeping from stone. Vessel can’t flee into the bog, the tar won’t hold his weight and it is said to be bottomless, so he has to stay on the wood.
He struggles along the main thoroughfare, the straightest and shortest passage through the maze of sheds, and almost makes it. But they stream out of the side-streets and alleyways just as he reaches the single road of planks that creeps out into the bog towards land. Vessel faces them, both hands on the smooth, worm-eaten wood of his bladeless oar. The tar people open and flap their stomachs, scrape their bat-fingers, and come at him on the narrow walkway. The sound of wood against claws fills the air, accompanied by the creaking and squeaking and screeching from the collapsing pumps and pipes out on the tar-lake.
During the melee Vessel’s left hand suddenly droops from his wrist like a rotten flower and tumbles to the ground. One of the tar people dives forward and catches the limb before it rolls into the bog. As one, Tar’s inhabitants rear their pale heads into the air and flutter and smack their gray lips and thick tongues. The tar person throws the loosened body part into the crowd and a meadow of hands rises up to pass it further and further back into the shed maze.
We run. Behind us the dripping torches and smoking jets die down one by one and Tar slowly turns as black as the night.
We crunch across the stone beach to the rowboat, turning occasionally to see if long shadows are following us, but the shore is empty. Vessel launches the rowboat back into the black waves, crawls in and lets the tide carry us slowly away from land.
The horizon is a wound at the edge of the world. Between the red gash and the lid of clouds rises an enormous inflamed orb that breathes long tongues of conflagration into the void. The heat is like a thousand fires burning.
The closer we drift towards the sun, the hotter the air becomes and the brighter the sky turns. We lie down at the bottom of the rowboat for shade. Vessel’s hair fans out on the leaves and he pushes me beneath it for cover, but smoke soon rises from us both and the scent of charred flesh stings our noses.
Vessel cups his hands into the water and soaks us thoroughly. When we start burning again, he cools us with more water. When that is no longer enough, he loosens the branches from his leg and twists the vines that held them in place into a wide loop. He hangs the loop from the stern, takes the carving out of the single pocket of his pants and places it at the bottom of the boat, and slips me gently inside the worn fabric. Then he drops into the water, holding onto the vines with his remaining hand. Thus we follow the boat further and further out towards the sun.
There is a loud creaking noise and the rowboat shudders as if from an impact. At the bottom of the wood, the carving has swelled up, like a corpse in the ocean. It is now wider than Vessel is tall and still growing. The air itself is screaming and the ocean has started to seethe.
Vessel pulls himself up into the boat, strains against the gigantic stone knot, grunts and groans, and somehow manages to push it over the rim. The carving splashes up a thin spray, before it sinks into the black water. Just a few wide bubbles dissolve on the surface.
But then the water explodes into a plume and something very large and heavy shoots up from the sea. Greasy dark water plunges off it like waterfalls and a stench assaults the air. The writhing knot is no longer cold stone, but reeking flesh. It rises and rises, until it reaches the searing sun that just freed itself from the horizon’s red grasp.
The twisting rat kings, serpent nests and squid’s tentacles envelop the sun like an embrace before dying. Then all slowly start to contract. There is the cry of a million broken-tailed rats, burning vipers, and bursting squid, and the sun’s disc cracks into a firework of glowing embers that fall from the sky like shooting stars, but are so small they go out before they hit the ocean. Only a sliver of the inflamed sun remains. The heat and light drop to the tepid dusk we have had for almost as far back as I can remember. The remaining pieces of rat, snake and squid plunge into the sea, smelling like singed hair, burned skin and boiled meat. They are so large a flood wave rises from them.
The wave swells and grows and rushes us back to the stony shore much faster than the tide took us out. The flood rolls and churns and reaches far inland, until it is diverted by the rivers and streams and marshes there, and we are finally deposited on dry ground, on a small mound of grass, an abandoned crocodile nest shaded by vine-choked trees veiled with lichen.
Vessel crawls out of the rowboat and drags himself to the top of the mound, while I lie exhausted on his head. He turns onto his back, places me on his quiet chest and smiles. One by one the stars become visible in the heavens. They are all small and faint and brown, having burned off their white and yellow a long, long time ago.